On Deadline? Here’s Your Headline!

What does it take to ensure that your sound bite gets past all those sophisticated hard-bitten scribes on the campaign bus and into the news reports — headlines, even? Apparently, all it takes is a rhyme that even a third-grader might find childish.

Last time John Kerry gave a big-time speech in New York City — on August 24, the week before the Republican National Convention — his speechwriters spoon-fed reporters this memorable money line (emphasis ours):

“The Bush campaign and its allies have turned to the tactics of fear and smear because they can’t talk about jobs, health care, energy independence, and rebuilding our alliances.”

No way the press could resist a rhyming sound bite ready-made for headlines, story leads, and nightly news top-of-broadcast teasers. Before Kerry even took the stage at Cooper Union and uttered the words “fear and smear,” one New York City tabloid reporter buzzed to Campaign Desk — as if composing her story on the spot — “the wires report that Kerry will say Bush is using ‘fear and smear.’”

Indeed both Bloomberg and the Associated Press led with “fear and smear” (and stuck it in the headline) — making certain that these three words, out of the thousands Kerry uttered, would reach newspaper readers in a range of states. The Los Angeles Times led with “fear and smear,” as did CNN.com.

Yesterday, Kerry returned to New York City for another much-hyped speech. This time, the Bush camp was armed with its own bite-sized, reporter-friendly rhyme in (rapid) response to Kerry’s speech — thereby ensuring its inclusion in press reports on Kerry’s appearance (emphasis ours):

“John Kerry’s latest position on Iraq is to advocate retreat and defeat in the face of terror.”

This line or some variation thereof was on the tip of multiple Bush spokesman’s tongues yesterday “prebutting” Kerry’s speech (and in the headline of a “news release” distributed to reporters and supporters by the Bush campaign). And sure enough, “retreat and defeat” appeared in much of the coverage of Bush’s response to Kerry’s speech.

Before Kerry opened his mouth yesterday morning, CNN’s Daryn Kagan previewed his speech and Bush’s rebuttal, telling viewers that Bush is “accusing the Democrat of defeat and retreat policies.” Judy Woodruff repeated the Republicans’ rhyme several hours later (“The Bush campaign accuses Kerry of sending a message of defeat and retreat on Iraq.”) The Associated Press picked up the line. And NBC’s Tom Brokaw invoked the phrase to tease his Nightly News story lineup (“The politics of war. John Kerry’s new Iraq attack on President Bush. The Bush campaign calls Kerry’s new plan “defeat and retreat.”) And the list goes on.

So take note, campaigners. The next cornball rhyme you come up with will get you all the headlines and the air time that you could hope for. Keep it simple, though — reporters have yet to show a similar fondness for iambic pentameter.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.